The verdict in a landmark trial for crimes against humanity will be heard tomorrow against a Syrian secret intelligence agent in the town of Koblenz in Germany.
Anwar Raslan, who defected from Syria’s feared intelligence service and moved to Germany where he applied for asylum in 2018, is the highest ranking former Syrian regime official to be tried in Europe for crimes against humanity in Syria.
Under German law serious crimes can be tried in the country even if Germany doesn’t have a direct connection to the crimes under the principle of universal jurisdiction.
Syria is not a member of the International Criminal Court which has hampered chances of trials there and China and Russia have vetoed the UN Security Council’s attempts to give the court jurisdiction. A trial such as this would never take place in Syria itself where impunity is rife.
Raslan, a former colonel, is accused of being a co-perpetrator complicit in the murder of 58 people and the torture of at least 4,000 others in the General Intelligence Al-Khatib Branch in Damascus, Syria – known as Branch 251 – between 2011 and 2012.
Prosecutors argued that he supervised the rape, sexual abuse, torture by electric shock and sleep deprivation of prisoners and beating with wires and whips.
Raslan’s lawyers read a statement he had prepared in which he said that he didn’t have anything to do with the torture. He also claimed to be a victim too and said that he had released people whenever he could.
Syrian lawyer Anwar Al-Bunni, who served as a witness at the trial, has said that Raslan was an engine in this devilish apparatus, not a cog in the machine.
The verdict is expected tomorrow. In December, German prosecutors demanded that Raslan be sentenced to life imprisonment.Raslan’s conviction is part of a series of trials taking place in Germany against state-sanctioned torture in Syria. In one week, a Syrian doctor identified as Alaa M and accused of crimes against humanity in Homs in 2012, will also go on trial.
In February last year a German court convicted Raslan’s lower ranking co-defendant Eyad Al-Gharib to four and a half years in prison for complicity in crimes against humanity, the first time international law had been used to convict a member of the Syrian intelligence services.
Prosecutors argued that Al-Gharib helped detain 30 anti-government protesters in 2011 and brought them to a prison in Damascus where they were later tortured and murdered.
Al-Gharib was found guilty of aiding and abetting crimes against humanity for transporting the prisoners to a jail where he knew systematic torture was taking place.
Witness testimony throughout the trial described torture in Syria, including how former prisoners were hung from the ceiling, raped, had their fingernails torn out and were doused in water and then tortured by electric shock.
Images leaked by the military defector known as Caesar were also shown at the trial as key evidence. Caesar was a photographer who worked for the military police in Damascus who photographed dead protesters shot by government forces.
Between May 2011 and August 2013, whilst at work, he saved 53,000 photos and smuggled them out of Syria on a hard drive.
For the two men’s trial, a forensic expert at the University of Cologne Dr Marcus Rothschild analysed 27,000 of Caesar’s photos, according to a Human Rights Watch report. Of the 6,821 people in the images he concluded that 110 were taken at Branch 251 where Raslan and Al-Gharib worked, judging by the number that was written on the corpses’ heads.
Dr Rothchild concluded that of the corpses at Branch 251 7.3 per cent of them had probably starved to death and 55 had injuries consistent with blunt force including hitting, pushing, or kicking.
At least 350,000 people have died in the Syrian war and over 12 million Syrians displaced from their homes with the Syrian government responsible for most crimes against civilians.
Hospitals, schools, and markets have been bombed and tens of thousands of political prisoners forcibly disappeared and systematically tortured.
Whilst Europe was at first welcoming to Syrian refugees, a decade on since the fighting began, media coverage has waned, and politicians talk of Damascus being a safe place to send Syrians back to.
Earlier this week the UK Home Office told a 25-year-old Syrian asylum seeker he can return home because it is safe to do so, whilst the Danish government is the first European country to revoke Syrian refugees’ permits.
Media coverage generated by this trial has been an opportunity for Syrians to speak out about how atrocities are still taking place in the country, including enforced disappearances, torture, extrajudicial killings and kidnappings of Syrian refugees who have recently returned, all of which continue to happen with no accountability for the authorities responsible.
CEO of the Centre of Victims for torture, Simon Adams, described the prosecution of Anwar and Al-Gharib as a “historic attempt to end the impunity that has allowed crimes against humanity to go unpunished for far too long.”
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.